Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Hirshhorn: Bulbous Membrane has nothing to do with art

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Art museums typically take as their mission something having to do with art, particularly in the areas of scholarship, collecting, conservation, preservation and education. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is no different. In its mission statement, posted on its website, the Hirshhorn makes clear that its mission is one hundred percent about visual art.

Apparently Hirshhorn director Richard Koshalek is less interested in the centrality of the visual arts to the Hirshhorn’s mission than he is in his biggest idea. This morning he took to the Wall Street Journal to give his most detailed exposition yet about his ‘Bulbous Membrane,’ the Diller Scofidio + Renfro-designed non-structure Koshalek hopes to build. In an interview with Judith H. Dobrzynski, Koshalek confirmed that if he is able to build the Bulbous Membrane, he plans to fill it with programming that’s largely irrelevant (and at best secondary or tertiary) to the museum’s mission. Koshalek detailed a variety of uses for the Bulbous Membrane, from programming launched for the Council on Foreign Relations to something nebulous that examines the intersection of culture and technology.

In paragraph seven of her story, Dobrzynski asks the obvious question: “But what has all this got to do with visual art?” It’s a question I’ve raised here on MAN and that Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik has raised as well. There’s an emerging critical consensus that Koshalek has run amok with his architectural fantasy. (I’ve also questioned the museum’s, er, Enron-esque approach to fundraising for the project.)

Koshalek couldn’t quite explain to Dobrzynski what his plans have to do with art. “This is not a conference. It is an educational exchange,” Koshalek told the Journal, adding that he thinks museums “have to curate the public spaces and educational programs as well as exhibitions.”

But apparently not with or related to art. Koshalek’s Hirshhorn has officially become the art museum where art takes a back seat to the director’s non-art-related ambitions. In a related story, the museum has yet to replace its two contemporary art curators, both of whom left the museum last year. Hirshhorn sources report that staff morale is at an all-time low.

(Furthermore, the Hirshhorn already has a perfectly good, recently modernized event space, the Ring Auditorium. It seats nearly 300 people.  It’s not clear why Koshalek is using staff resources and time to build a redundant, temporary space. There’s nothing wrong with the museum creating and hosting programming that engages the visual arts with other disciplines or areas, but we’re nearly a year into the museum’s discussions of the Membrane it has yet to identify that as a particular focus. The inflated tail seems to be wagging the dog.)

Dobrzynski’s WSJ piece features Koshalek prattling on about his interests in all sorts of areas, virtually none of them being modern or contemporary art. It’s time for the Hirshhorn’s trustees to step in and to take actions that reaffirm the museum’s mission statement. It’s time for them to show they’re more interested in the Hirshhorn, its collection and its mission than their director seems to be.

Also: Last month MAN broke news of the first gift to the project. I cited sources who were present when Koshalek announced the gift at a private event and reported that Koshalek announced the gift as a seven-figure sum coming from New York. After initially confirming that account, Hirshhorn spokesperson Gabriel Riera emailed me to tell me the money was not coming from New York. As a result, I corrected the post. Today’s WSJ reports that the Hirshhorn has raised a seven-figure sum from Bloomberg, LP, which is based in New York.

Update, 11:23am: I received this email from a Hirshhorn spokesperson this morning: “I want to clarify that the funding that [Koshalek] talked about at the private event is different and separate from the funding referred to in the WSJ. That other funding — from an anonymous donor — is not from New York. My earlier statement to you is correct.” I asked if that means the Hirshhorn has a second, seven-figure Bulbous Membrane-related donation lined up and the spokesperson told me: “These things are still being worked out so I’m not going to confirm any amounts. I will confirm that we’re talking about two separate gifts.”

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  1. […] announcement via the Wall Street Journal, revealing a $1 million gift from Bloomberg, LP. Riera told MAN that the $1 million from Bloomberg was unrelated to the August announcement and indirectly called […]

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